It’s been nearly five months since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, just two weeks after Hurricane Irma, but much devastation still remains, especially in remote areas like the island municipality of Vieques.
That’s why a group of doctors, including two from New York City, partnered with a Puerto Rican nonprofit over the weekend to bring medical aid and other supplies to the roughly 8,000 residents on the island eight miles off the eastern Puerto Rico coast.
“I always had the intent to go out into the community to do some outreach and was thinking of areas we could have impact on and what remote areas we could go to, and Vieques came up,” Dr. Pedro Torres told Metro ahead of his trip. “We’re going to see if we can establish a system to give people someone to speak with, somewhere they can follow up to and someone who can check on their well-being. It’s important for them to know they aren’t forgotten.”
The Queens native has been doing his emergency medicine residency in Ponce, Puerto Rico, for the past three years and experienced Hurricane Maria firsthand.
“The force was unimaginable,” he recalled.
Dr. Bilal Khan, a sleep medicine fellow at Norwalk Hospital in Norwalk, Connecticut; Dr. Rachna Patel, a geriatrics fellow at Mount Sinai here in the city, and Dr. Kirill Alekseyev, a Brooklyn native from Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center in Brooklyn, joined Torres on the trip. The doctors, who all attended the American University of Antigua, partnered with A la Mano por Puerto Rico, a nonprofit that provides food, water and medical services for those in need.
Patel told Metro after returning from Vieques on Monday that the doctors were “welcomed with open arms.”
“So many of them became tearful at the thought we had come to help, but they were the ones who showed us so much strength and taught us a lot about recovery,” she said.
Alekseyev was surprised to find the majority of the island still only has generator-run power.
“There are only two physicians on the island, and patients that need things like dialysis have to travel to other islands to get it,” he said. “It is extremely important for people to go on trips like this one. People in Vieques have no insurance, can’t afford medical care or simply don’t have access to doctors.”
Hurricane Maria, Torres said, “brought to the surface many of the underlying health issues in poor communities. These healthcare disparities have always existed.”
The main takeaway of the doctors’ trip was to create a foundation that would allow Vieques residents to get back on their feet.
“We wanted to ensure that all people had adequate follow-up care, enough medication until their next doctor’s visit and communication with social workers who could help with depression and mental health issues,” Patel said.